Since Yvon Chouinard began selling reusable climbing pitons from the trunk of his car in 1957, Patagonia has built a reputation as a sustainable and environmentally conscious company. While the clothing and equipment retailer’s sustainability efforts have expanded over time, it took the Ventura, Calif.-based company nearly two decades to fully understand its responsibility to its customers, the environment and society, said Vincent Stanley, who serves as director of philosophy at Patagonia, a certified Benefit Corporation (B Corp). Stanley, Chouinard’s nephew, is helping to spread the company’s philosophy internally while also working to promote the benefits of corporate responsibility to others. Prior to a May 12 public event hosted by Local First to tout the region’s B Corp community, Stanley spoke with MiBiz about how sustainability can impact profitability.
At what point in the life of a business do you think corporate responsibility begins?
I think it starts when you open the doors. The rule of thumb is if there’s something you can do or a problem you can solve, then do it.
So size doesn’t matter for sustainability?
Companies often use size as an excuse to not do anything. When I talk to young entrepreneurs, I encourage them to go for a B Corp or 1% For the Planet designations from the beginning. I think for companies that start right off making that commitment, it creates a lot less pain than it does when you’ve been in the business two or three years and have to change your margin structure or persuade your investors and employees to go along with it. It’s much easier to define that task in the early stages.
How does becoming a certified B Corp drive a company’s bottom line?
Companies that pursue sustainability efforts get savings in water, energy and waste. Often in that effort, you learn more about your own process and sometimes come up with products that you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to develop. I think it also helps in recruiting young people — millennials who care very much about having meaningful work and what kind of companies they’re working for.
What do these certifications – B Corp, LEED and so on – do for consumer perception?
Every business these days in the age of social media and instant communication faces reputation risk. There’s an interest for all businesses to be aware of what their practices are, regardless if they believe in those processes, because they don’t want to alienate their customers.
What’s an example of the sustainable business philosophy at work for Patagonia?
Durability (in the design process) has become more important to us. That’s the value that came out of designing climbing equipment because you don’t want to make equipment that doesn’t last. But it also plays out environmentally because there are very few things that we can make that don’t cost the environment more than what we can pay back. Making something to last for a long time to reduce the need for replacement is an environmental value.
What’s on the horizon for Patagonia’s sustainability efforts?
A lot of the work we’re doing right now is concentrating on cooperative work. We helped create the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which is a coalition of brands and factories that are responsible for making a third of the clothing and footwear in the world. The effort there is to figure out the best environmental and social practices for these organizations and try to get that info to the designers.
How does Patagonia work with partner organizations to solve sustainability and corporate responsibility issues?
We try to work collaboratively in our supply chain. If we identify a problem with wastewater or labor, we don’t just leave the factory, but go in and talk with them. We also don’t necessarily insist that the factory solve the problem on its own if it creates a financial hardship and we work as closely as we can with them.
As the nephew of Yvon Chouinard, have you always been interested in this line of work?
I’d been with the company off and on since I was 20 years old in 1973 and would come and work six months to make enough money to go travel in Europe. It was an accidental journey for me. I had no strong environmental interests when I joined. I learned what I learned after I joined the company.
Interview conducted and condensed by John Wiegand.